THE ANSWER WITHIN: “We love breakthrough stuff,” says Ninja (right, with Yo-Landi Visser), “and the best way to have a breakthrough is to break through your own mind.”
Some artists figure out their signature style through a slow organic process. For others, inspiration is a bolt from the blue. The latter was definitely the case for Watkin Tudor Jones, a/k/a Ninja. When he and Yo-Landi Visser came up with the jarring style and æsthetic that would become South African rap sensation Die Antwoord, it was, in Ninja's words, "like getting punched in the face. You know how if you're getting punched in the face, it's pretty fucking obvious that you're getting punched in the face? We got punched in the face."
It was a metaphorical beating that Ninja and company have been passing on to the music-listening public ever since. The face punch was his and Visser's discovery of zef, a Cape Flats gangster culture that mixes English and Afrikaans. The result was Die Antwoord ("the answer" in Afrikaans), a strange mix of rave and pop music with a hardcore rapping style that goes into grotesque places where few contemporary rappers will dare tread. Jones, post–face punch, became Ninja, and he and Yo-Landi have been on a mission ever since.
"The weird thing about zef," he explains over the phone, "is that it's this kind of apocalyptic style that's all about this information overload. The zef zone is this wasteland of fucking debris and whatnot. Like, you have a little kid in a South African ghetto rocking, like, a 50 Cent T-shirt. That, to me, is zef. It's all this shit at the bottom of the barrel. For me and Yo-Landi, we stuck all that shit together and turned it into a fucking machine. You know, a mech, like in manga, Japanese comics? We took all that apocalyptic debris and gave it its own style and built a machine with all that debris and climbed into it, and it's called Die Antwoord. And it's fucking indestructible."
So far, that has proved true: since breaking internationally in early 2009 with an album for free download and a series of music videos, Die Antwoord have been overloading web servers with demand for their bizarre music. $O$ (Interscope), their debut album and the object of a frantic major-label bidding war, hits stores this week. Those cracking the seal of $O$ will find themselves confronted with some of the year's strangest music, whether in the Diplo-assisted brutal grooves of new single "Evil Boy" or the nearly 10-minute beatbox phantasmogoria of "Beat Boy."
Blood, body parts, sexual organs, and strange fantasies all populate their lyrical world. "A lot of our music is subconsciously driven," says Ninja. "We love breakthrough stuff, and the best way to have a breakthrough is to break through your own mind. It's exciting, it's scary, it's thrilling. And it's not gross, to me, it's amazing and really cool to discover new places, even in your own mind. True surreality is embedded in your subconscious, issues, fears, undiscovered territory. All our music is hugely personal."